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THE eyes of the world were on Paris on Saturday December 15 for Act V of the astonishing uprising of the gilets jaunes.
But the clouds of tear gas which once again filled the Champs Elysees hid an aspect of the revolt which sometimes goes unnoticed by those who talk only of the demonstrations held in the French capital.
What is remarkable about the uprising is that it is a thoroughly decentralised affair, which can boast roots in provincial France that the urban upstarts of 1968 could only have dreamed of.
At the same time as slightly reduced numbers of gilets jaunes were being kettled and chased by police in Paris, all over the country smaller demos were being staged, roads were being blocked, motorway toll booths occupied to let motorists travel for free.
And the presence of the gilets jaunes goes even deeper than that, as I discovered when I called in at St Hippolyte du Fort in the Gard department of south-east France, 400 miles away from President Emmanuel Macron’s centre of power.
This small town, really a large village, of just 4,000 inhabitants is 30 miles down the D999 from Nimes, where that same day gilets jaunes were blocking the A9 motorway.
Ever since the start of the movement, on November 17, a group of local rebels have been occupying a roundabout on the edge of the town near the Super U supermarket. Sometimes they block the traffic, but today they were happy just to show their presence.
At least half of the cars and lorries that pass the occupation are displaying yellow high-vis jackets in their windscreens in solidarity with the movement and there are constant hoots of approval from drivers.
The gilets jaunes of “St Hippo,” as the place is known locally, don’t look in the least like those “scary extremists” depicted in some of the mainstream media. Mainly middle-aged, they have got a barbecue going and, in inevitable French style, when midday comes round everyone starts tucking in.
But their determined occupation makes it clear that these are no lightweight, part-time or half-hearted protesters, as do the banners and posters festooned around their tents and the roundabout.
“The war of the people against tyranny!” declares one sign and behind it a home-made banner warns: “Those who do revolutions by half are only digging their own graves.”
“This is not a demonstration but a revolt!” insists a placard signed GJ for gilets jaunes. “Enough! The people are in the streets!” says another, adorned with an angry emoji face.
The French government spent the week leading up to December 15 telling the gilets jaunes to go home. Macron had appeared on TV to offer some concessions, after all, and then there was the terror attack in Strasbourg.
Out of respect for the victims, gilets jaunes should stop protesting and causing disruption, went the well-publicised official line.
I asked some of the gilets jaunes at St Hippo why they hadn’t taken the authorities’ advice and thrown in the towel.
“We don’t want to stop,” said Thierry, who is now on disability benefit after a life working in the construction industry. “Macron’s speech changed nothing. He tried to divide us. It was even prerecorded, which is pathetic.
“As for the attack, we all have empathy for those involved, but the situation remains the same.”
Benoit was of the same opinion, saying: “The terrorist attack will quickly be dealt with. But the social situation hasn’t changed.
“Macron was really taking the piss. The €100 a month he is putting on the minimum wage is not going to be paid by the bosses but by the state’s pension and social security funds. We are paying for it ourselves.”
He said the real issue was about “sharing wealth better.” At the moment it was all concentrated in the hands of a few people and big wealthy cities like Paris and Lyons, while in the poor rural south, local services were constantly being cut and closed down.
Marie was visiting the occupation site with her partner and explained this was the first time they had physically expressed their support for the gilets jaunes. They were on the point of retiring and were worried that they would not have enough to live on, she said.
She complained about the way government policies were destroying public services, such as hospitals, declaring: “It’s a disaster. Everything is being wrecked.
“People are getting poorer and poorer. We have to act on the cause behind this and the cause is the system and the way it operates, the elite that runs it.”
Another first-time supporter was Audrey, a young woman who lives a few kilometres away from St Hippo.
She explained that she had got involved after attending a public meeting held in the town on Wednesday December 12.
There had been general agreement there about the basis of the movement which was “equality and opposition to a world of inequality.”
On other areas, people had disagreed, such as on definitions of capitalism. There had also been a debate between those who wanted to keep putting forward a wide raft of demands and proposals and those who wanted it reduced to one demand, namely for “RICs,” citizens’ referendums which would shape state policy.
These gilets jaunes had argued that the RIC concept was the key and that once participative democracy was in place, the other demands would naturally be met.
Others had said there was no point, as the government was never actually going to take any notice of the referendum decisions.
But Audrey insisted that the general spirit of unity remained, despite the different backgrounds of the people involved, saying: “It’s important to put differences aside.”
Thierry, the former construction worker, had a lot of positive suggestions about how government policy could be changed.
For instance, he said the government should tax the robots which were replacing human workers in large swathes of industry. This income would replace the social security contributions that these firms were no longer paying the axed staff.
Taxes should scrapped for local craftspeople to encourage activity and jobs in rural areas and more should be done for people like him, on disability benefit, who had been ignored by Macron in his TV speech.
Summing it all up, Thierry said: “We are in a vertical world and it would be good to make it a horizontal and proportional one.”
Marie stressed that it would not be easy to bring about the major changes the gilets jaunes had in mind, as the state had so many means at its disposal.
But she felt that something very significant was taking place in a France where people had simply had enough, asserting: “This is the breaking point.”
The gilets jaunes are often seen calling for Macron to resign, but Benoit insisted that, for him at least, that would not amount to a victory. Wealth and power needed to be fairly distributed, he said. “Basically, I want a revolution.”
Paul Cudenec is a member of the Shoal Collective
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